Senate budget plan would shutter state parks

[Source:  Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup]

Like a bystander gunned down in a gang shooting, the Arizona State Parks system will have to virtually shut down if the recently adopted state Senate budget takes effect, according to park officials.

The Senate budget would sweep nearly $3 million in funding from the state park’s budgets, on top of $72 million in cuts over the past three years. In addition, the Senate budget would impose spending and contracting restrictions that would prevent the parks from even contracting with other agencies to run the now-endangered collection of 28 sites.

“Because they’ve got burrs under the saddle, they’re using that as an excuse to rip off the saddle and shoot the horse,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.

That budget proposal could force the closure of every park in the system, including Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, Rim Country’s best-known tourist attraction.

“It’ll kill the ability to keep any state parks open,” said Evans, who spent the week in Phoenix lobbying House members to convince them to reject the Senate budget in favor of Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal.

“Not only would (the Senate version) sweep $3 million in funding, but it imposes spending restrictions. So the parks could raise $10 million in gate fees — but could only spend $7.5 million.”

Other provisions in the bill would strangle the backup plan for keeping Tonto Natural Bridge open by making it almost impossible to turn the park over to a private contractor.

Payson and other local supporters have formed an innovative partnership with the state parks system in the past two years to keep the world’s largest natural travertine arch open, mindful that at its peak Tonto Natural Bridge drew more than 90,000 visitors yearly who pumped an estimated $26 million annually into the region’s struggling, tourist-oriented economy.

The state parks system came up with money to repair the rotted roof and shore up the historic lodge so it could perhaps once again house paying guests. Payson has contributed money to keep the park open and the locally-formed Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge has raised money and provided volunteers to compensate for deep staffing cuts.

Earlier this year, the park system indicated it hopes to find a private contractor to help operate Tonto Natural Bridge, by either taking over the entire operation or running certain potentially money-making elements of the park, like a lodge, gift shop or campground. The partnership with Payson, Star Valley the Tonto Apache Tribe and the local support group have provided a model for efforts to save parks statewide.

Evans said the state Senate’s budget, supported by Rim Country representative Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake), goes far beyond balancing the budget to seemingly settle political scores.

“There are multiple agendas here and some (lawmakers) are using the budget to accomplish what they’ve tried to do for years,” he said.

As an example, he cited the provisions in the budget bill that would cripple efforts to bring in private contractors or form partnerships to help operate the parks.

“The Senate bill makes it virtually impossible to do that as well,” Evans concluded.

Assistant State Parks Director Jay Ziemann put out a memo this week detailing the potential impact of the cuts proposed in the Senate budget.

He noted that the parks system has already absorbed some $72 million in cuts in three years, which has left half of the state parks jobs vacant and stripped away most maintenance funds.

The proposed additional cuts include a $2-million reduction in the $10-million enhancement fund, which comes mostly from fees visitors pay when they visit. The language of the bill would make it impossible for the system to raise more money by raising additional fees and negotiating partnerships. Since the state and Payson developed their partnership to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open, the state has developed similar agreements crucial to keeping 16 other parks operating. The Senate budget will likely kill all those partnerships, concluded Ziemann.

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